The FringeArts-sponsored On the Concept of the Face Regarding the Son of God is one of the most anticipated shows of the 2013 Fringe Festival. Creator Romeo Castellucci is regarded as one of the most influential and important theater artists of our time, serving as theater director at a Venice Biennial and associate artists” at a Festival d’Avignon, and his Sul concetto di volto nel figlio di Dio (as it’s called in the original Italian) has sparked controversy around the world. A massive, iconic portrait of Jesus hangs as a backdrop to the quiet action onstage: a son caring for his incontinent father. The portrait then becomes the focus of a violent destructive rage, which has stunned and angered audiences worldwide. Walkouts, riots, audience abuse: the response has been heated. It is therefore curious to discover that the Philadelphia premiere is being co-presented by a religious organization: the Broad Street Ministry (BSM).
Phindie talked to Pastor Bill Golderer about the play, it’s look at religion, and how the association with BSM came about.
Phindie: The religious content of this play was controversial when staged elsewhere. Why did the Broad Street Ministry want to be associated with it?
Bill Golderer: All controversy is not created equal. One kind of controversy is the “invented” or” manufactured” kind, where there is perceived to be something at stake when in fact nothing is. Miley Cyrus comes to mind. However, Jesus had a way of igniting and fanning controversy whenever he really began to push people to consider what he came here to say and do—which tended to be things of real importance that people didn’t want to hear. I am not saying by presenting this work BSM or FringeArts are being Jesus—but I do think there is something very much at stake in this work.
Most of BSM’s interaction with artists is mutually curatorial, where we share resources, incubate ideas and grow together when the artistic vision is in alignment with the community’s values: that every Philadelphian enjoy access to what they need to flourish, enough food and friendship to live and love well. The other value that art can help us to shine a light on is that the indignity and severity of our suffering is not something we should turn away from just because it makes us uncomfortable. BSM is a community that walks toward the suffering of others and even takes some responsibility for alleviating it (and we are always looking for others who want to be a part of that). It is my hope that when a collaboration like this one with Nick Stuccio and the good folks at FringeArts takes shape, BSM will be able to extend itself further into work that elevates our consciousness and deepens our experience of the fullness of human experience. We are always on the lookout for work that has a quality of transcendence and immediacy.
Phindie: What are you looking forward to about the performances?
BG: Being present for the full impact of the work in person.
Phindie: Have you spoken to creator Romeo Castellucci about his views on Christianity?
BG: No. My Italian is tragic.
Phindie: Western society, certainly Europe and to a lesser extent the U.S., has seen a “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of “The Sea of Faith” (to quote Matthew Arnold). How do you think this play speaks to that retreat and absence?
BG: I don’t think it has much to offer as it relates to the relative religiosity or spirituality of our society. I actually don’t think that is super interesting. Organized religion is populated now as it has been since the beginning of time with both charlatans and saints—it is both profound and absurd. The waxing and waning of Christianity’s fortunes are less important than what Christian communities are willing to do and be and become with God’s help. When we are at our best, the church is about sacrifice not selfishness.
With that said, I think this play is primarily about who we are in relationship to suffering, mortality and our finitude. Castellucci invites us to contend with the limitations of our mortality. To contend with these concerns on a foundational level necessarily means moving past polite custom. To only look at those who age graciously—like say Betty White. (I have nothing against Betty White by the way—but our view of her seemingly anti-aging process says a lot about who we are now I think).
Currently our culture is in dangerous denial about this reality—our mortality—and is willing to go to any length to be diverted from it. I have found that living with an awareness of the mystery of my mortality means being able to focus my attention and make essential choices. There are a limited amount of opportunities in my time here on this planet where I will have the chance to gaze upon the face of the person before me. I will not always have the strength in my limbs that I do today. I will not always have the mental acuity or the vocal chords to speak into another’s life a word of curse or blessing. And which will I, should I, must I, choose?
Phindie: The theater-going public is generally pretty liberal and secular. What role, if any, can religion have for atheists? And for secular society?
BG: Atheists, agnostics, cautious believers, and unflinching believers have more in common than we might think. All are capable of excommunicating each other for their belief systems and all are capable of embracing each other for who they are and what they believe. What this play points to is that we all will experience in our lifetime: desperation, frustration, and anguish. We are all given the opportunity to extend to each other compassion, selflessness, and care. I believe the theater-going public is often on a journey for meaning and is on the lookout for something that is increasingly rare in church or wider society: something profound.
Phindie: The play met with protests in Montclair, NJ, and in Paris, France. Do you expect any reaction in Philadelphia? What would you tell someone who wanted to protest the piece?
BG: While I don’t want people to be upset for the sake of being upset, that which upsets us reveals something that is important to us. I mean, if you are able to put yourself in the protesters’ shoes, how should we feel about an image of the One who we believe—if you are Christian—brings healing and reconciliation and redemption into this world was attacked, defaced or destroyed? It can make you feel like our most core beliefs are being disrespected by the artist or his work. And not many people I know respond well when they are made to feel that their foundational beliefs about the world and what is important are disrespected or in this case perhaps laid to waste. But I don’t think that is what is going on at all.
Phindie: What would you tell someone who wanted to protest the piece?
BG: I would invite the protesters to consider how frankly Biblical the questions Castellucci’s work poses are. Even a cursory reading of the psalms will reveal how important it is to be able to rail away at God—even curse God. More than a third of these “songs of the faith” are cries of anger and desperation against God’s presumed absence in times of trial and struggle. God is not brittle and so we can afford to be bold in venting our anger or expressing our doubts.
Phindie: The Ministry has hosted a bunch of theater companies in the last few years. How does this fit in with your mission? Do you see any of these plays? Any favorites?
BG: We tend to favor art that elevates our spirit and finds a way to bring people from very different “Philadelphias” into a closer relationship with what I believe to be ultimately true—that we have a common destiny as Philadelphians. Art sometimes widens the gap between us rather than coaxing or proding us into a closer relationship with each other—even when that is costly for us to do so. I find that art when it is at its most true brings us into a more honest and durable connection with what is lasting, what is noble, and what is possible. Right now, Philadelphia needs its imagination sparked and its backbone strengthened. The artists we work closely with get that.
Phindie: Any favorites among the plays at BSM?
BG: I have to say my favorite was the last play that we actually helped to produce. It was in 2009: Quixote.
Phindie: Castellucci’s title uses the moniker “Son of God”. What’s your preferred name for Jesus?
BG: Friend. I could tell you why this is. But I think this person does a better job of it than I could.
Phindie: A huge portrait of Jesus is projected as the backdrop to the play. What’s your favorite artistic representation of Jesus?
BG: I am more of a performance artist type than a representational artist type. In the gospel of Matthew, we are told we meet Jesus face-to-face every time we feed someone who is hungry, clothe someone who in naked, or free someone who is imprisoned—in every sense of that word. This is pretty much what BSM is about—a conspicuous representation of Christ’s life (that I believe is ongoing). Representational art tends to fix something in time as though who you are can be somehow captured by your photograph. I am drawn to a Jesus in three-dimensions, as someone I can meet in the here and now in many people’s faces.
Phindie: Favorite saying of Jesus?
BG: “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20)